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Rap Christmas Stamps with Religious Themes As Violation of Church-state Separation

The American Jewish Congress and other groups are protesting the issuance of Christmas postage stamps with religious themes which, they say, puts the Federal Government in the role of supporting a religion in violation of the separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. The American Jewish Congress has directed its protest specifically to this year’s Christmas stamp which shows a detail of “The Annunciation,” a painting by the 15th Century Flemish master Jan Van Eyck that hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Another group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has a suit pending in Federal District Court over the 1966 and 1967 Christmas stamps that show Madonna and Child details from the Han. Memling painting, “Madonna and Child with Angels.”

The AJ Congress, in a letter to Postmaster General W. Marvin Watson, noted that when Christmas stamps were first introduced in 1962, they contained such “relatively innocuous” designs as holly wreaths. But the Van Eyck painting, the AJ Congress maintained, celebrates “the dogma of the Virgin birth.” By issuing such a stamp, “the Government sets a precedent for using its power and prestige to support the celebration of a religious holiday. This amounts to Government support of specific religious ideas even when those ideas are antithetical to the religious beliefs of others,” the AJ Congress letter charged.

(Two Christmas stamps issued by the British Post Office carefully avoid any religious connotation. Both show customary holiday scenes of children playing with toys.)

The Federal District Court refused to hear the case brought by the Americans United group last year but was subsequently overruled by the United States Court of Appeals. Spokesmen for the group said that sending sectarian symbols into private homes through the mails opens the way for putting such symbols in public buildings. Stamp proponents have called the charges “ridiculous” and insist that the themes for the Christmas stamps were selected for their artistic validity, not their religious content. Opponents say, however, that postage-stamp size reproductions of great paintings have little artistic value.

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